Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer in the Style section of The Washington Post.
These are the greatest words of wisdom my mother ever offered me: “No one is looking at you, Ellen.”
The first time I heard them, as I stood in front of a mirror curling my bangs again and again and again in preparation for a junior high dance, I was appalled. What do you mean no one is looking at me? Why aren’t they looking at me???
“Everyone’s too busy worrying about themselves,” she said, stepping out of the bathroom.
I was none too keen on that message as a seventh-grader, but it has since become one of the most comforting refrains of my life. Will it seem weird if I transfer to a new college after only one semester? Eh, no one’s looking at me. Are these pants a little too tight in the thighs? Good thing no one’s looking at me. Is my career stacking up to those of my colleagues? Oh, that’s right! No one’s looking at me. Hurrah!
They are, of course, but not intensely and never for long. Everyone’s too busy worrying about themselves.
I was so happy to see my mom’s insight backed up by science in Melissa Dahl’s fascinating new book, “Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.” Dahl, a senior editor at New York Magazine, has done the good work of taking a serious look at one of our most common, least-understood human experiences: embarrassment.
And the author is, thankfully, generous in sharing her own flashes of hot mortification — like the time she walked out of an office bathroom with her skirt tucked into her stockings. “To me,” Dahl writes, “awkwardness is self-consciousness tinged with uncertainty, in moments both trivial and serious.”
“Cringeworthy” explores the scientific literature that helps explain embarrassment — and why we feel it so acutely — and offers practical suggestions on how to coexist with the emotion more peacefully. (In the hopes that we won’t suffer so much from flashbacks of our own skirt-in-stockings scenarios.)
Dahl tracked down a scientific name for the dynamic my mom was describing. It’s the “spotlight effect,” and Dahl defines it as “our tendency to overestimate how closely others are noticing what we do or how we look.”
Dahl interviews researchers who conducted experiments showing that people really do scrutinize us less than we fear. So perhaps it’s not worth it to keep rerunning the mental footage of yourself tripping on the sidewalk this morning. Everyone else has already forgotten it.
“Give yourself a break about the coffee stain on your shirt or the weird comment you made on a first date or, say, the slideshow gone haywire,” Dahl writes. “Fewer people are keeping track of your foibles than you imagine.”
And what about those bursts of horrifying memories that suddenly pop up, recounting embarrassments of long, long ago? Like, for instance, when a 7-year-old took over the dance floor at someone else’s bat mitzvah to show off a terrible Elvis impersonation. (Thirty years later, my stomach still churns at the thought of this particular display of showmanship. Perhaps I wanted to make darn sure people were looking at me.)
Dahl calls these memories “cringe attacks” and describes them as “the little humiliations from your past that come back unbidden, sometimes years after they first occurred.” Apparently we all have them, which is a relief to both Dahl and me, and they happen because our minds are trained to hold onto experiences that carry the strongest emotions. Births, deaths, bad Elvis impressions.
Dahl found a study showing that if we can shift the focus to other details surrounding the cringe attack — what the room looked like, who else was there — we can lessen the emotion accompanying the memory.
And Dahl makes a strong case that our aversion to awkwardness may be holding us back as a society. Stories from the #MeToo movement haven’t been fun for anyone, but they’re necessary and important to tell. What conversations about race, religion, gender and class are we avoiding out of fear of tripping into an uncomfortable space?
Dahl sent herself to a weekend-long workshop called “Undoing Racism.” At the start of the workshop she felt awkward, stumbling through an introductory explanation of her motivation for attending. But by the end, that awkwardness felt like a badge of courage — everyone there was doing challenging work in an effort to become better people and better members of society. Among other things, Dahl came away with a new phrase: “your growing edge.” The idea is that by wading into a seemingly precarious topic, some of the precariousness dissipates. “Change the way you conceptualize a feeling,” she writes, “and you can change the way you feel it.”
Dahl writes with levity, grace and self-awareness. Her multi-year exploration of awkwardness has given her more compassion for herself and the rest of us bumbling nitwits.
She ends the book on stage at a storytelling event in Brooklyn, where she reads passages from her seventh-grade diary. Dahl moved around a lot as a kid but journaled avidly, revealing her adolescent, eager-to-please naivete and her enduring love for the boy band that recorded “MMMBop.” “I just can’t believe I don’t live in Nashville anymore,” she read to the crowd. “People here are okay, but I loved everyone there. Everyone there? Loved Hanson!”
It was a jump-in-the-deep-end exercise to live the ultimate lesson of her research. “The best way to be comfortable with that part of yourself again is to share the awkwardness with someone else,” Dahl concludes. “It’s the choice between contemptuous cringing and compassionate cringing, but directed toward yourself. You bring back the pushed-away piece of you.” See? I told you about that whole Elvis episode and now I’m free. I’m free!
I do feel a little liberated by Dahl’s book. It’s a great reminder of the universal nature of awkwardness and a call to spend less time twisting the knives in our own hearts. If no one else is looking at me, perhaps I can shift my gaze, too.
“Little humiliations can bring people together, if we let them,” Dahl writes. “The ridiculous in me honors the ridiculous in you.”
By Melissa Dahl
Portfolio. 304 pp. $27